L.A. sheriff says it’s not pursuing any ‘criminal charges against any reporters’

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A newspaper is calling out Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva for attempting to “criminalize newsworthy reporting” by targeting one of its reporters in an ongoing investigation into an alleged police cover-up.

At an April 28, 2022, press conference, Villanueva displayed the photo of Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian under the heading of “What did they know and when did they know it?” on a screen in the city’s Hall of Justice briefing room.

Tchekmedyian has extensively covered the alleged cover-up including releasing a video of a sheriff’s deputy kneeling on the neck of a man who was handcuffed, a move that drew startling comparisons to the death of George Floyd.

The L.A. Times reporting claimed the sheriff was involved in an attempt to cover up the incident, something Villanueva has denied.

At the event, Villanueva indicated that Tchekmedyian was being investigated for her use of leaked documents and the video.

The response from first amendment and journalism advocates was almost immediate. The L.A. Times’ attorney and top editor also sent letters to Villanueva expressing their concerns over his actions at the event.

“Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s attack on Alene Tchekmedyian’s First Amendment rights for doing newsworthy reporting on a video that showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head is outrageous. We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and the Los Angeles Times’ rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities,” wrote Executive Editor Kevin Merida in a statement.

Social media also lit up with claims that Villanueva and his department were targeting Tchekmedyian with criminal charges, causing the department to issue a series of tweets clarifying its position.

“Resulting from the incredible frenzy of misinformation being circulated, I must clarify at no time today did I state an LA Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation. We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters,” the first tweet read, which included Villanueva’s official headshot.

“We will conduct a thorough investigation regarding the unlawful disclosure of evidence and documentation in an active criminal case. The multiple active investigations stemming from this incident will be shared and monitored by an outside law enforcement entity,” reads another.

However, at the press conference, Villanueva made claims that Tchekmedyian received internal materials “illegally.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s a huge, complex area of law and freedom of the press and all that,” he said. “However, when it’s stolen material, at some point you actually become part of the story.”

He also called on Tchekmedyian to reveal how the materials were obtained.

California does have a so-called “shield law” that protects journalists who refuse to reveal sources from being held in contempt, though there are some exceptions.

The law almost certainly can be interpreted to include Tchekmedyian as the definition of a “reporter” and extends to “specific information obtained during newsgathering but not disclosed to the public.”

The law goes on to note that this can include “all notes, outlines, photographs, tapes or other data of whatever sort.”

The fact that Tchekmedyian allegedly received materials from inside the sheriff’s office, which could be in violation of both department policy and the law, does open up some more gray areas of the law.

Villanueva has been in the spotlight before for his stance on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, including a public announcement that he would not enforce a Los Angeles County mandate put in place in 2021.

At the time, he said that requiring such mandates would cause his already shorthanded department to lose more employees who would rather quit their jobs then get a vaccine.

He appeared on Fox’s right leaning cable channel calling threatening law enforcement jobs as “morally repulsive,” blaming what he labeled as “woke politicians.”